Essay: Robert Woodon the suburbs

The Next Suburb Over

Robert Wood is a recipient of a 2017 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the third of three essays by Wood to appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Rita Horanyi and Darius Sepehri. Read all the essays

Kings Theatre at Marrickville, Sydney. Photo: Sam Hood. State Library of New South Wales collection.

A continual thread of thoughtful reflection that connects the suburbs to Australian national identity. It harks back, in particular, to a discursive moment just after the second world war, when suburbia as a demographic reality and set of lifestyle choices sprawled into new territory. The 1950s was ‘the suburban moment’, a moment which was seen as the owl of Minerva flew at dusk, when writers like Donald Horne and Robyn Boyd expressed a mood of intellectual despair a decade later, and took evident pleasure in negating ‘the common man’. They, and others, were reflecting on the sudden material changes, on how the car, television, bungalow became the norm, when Australia lost something fundamental in the dialectic of its suburbanisation.

And yet, the experiences of the 1950s and the detractors of the 1960s together provide a bedrock for thinking about ‘character’ and how that connects to poetic, and other cultural, expressions of ‘Australianness’ now. After all, suburban Australia is there wherever we look; in cinema with The BBQ (2018); in painting with the Howard Arkley retrospective at Tarrawarra in 2016; in television with a wide selection of reality shows including Married At First Sight; on the nightly broadcast news that advertises crime on the peripheries of what constitutes our parochial centres; in music with Courtney Barnett’s Depreston (2016). The suburbs are a perennial topic for culture and hence public debate, but they are so present that they remain undefined, an absent centre that becomes a calcified assumption. In the common sense language games of today, quite simply, you know the suburbs when you see them.

As they are normally understood, the suburbs are places between the urban and the rural, places that bisect ‘Sydney and the bush’, a site between the Athenian and the Boethian, as Les Murray would have it. Ludwig Wittgenstein echoes a common theme when he defined them as ‘a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’ They are the conformist and planned buildings recently added to the city and encroaching on nature. This is not the new of Ezra Pound’s dictum,‘make it new’, but rather a simple material condition of coming after the city and even later than the country.We could infer that they are simulacra, facsimile, fake. They are second order versions of the culture found in the metropole, fresh from the packet, new plastics, new commodities that are fetishes, new ways of doing things for the sake of advertising. And in so doing, suburbs displace wildness, colonise landscapes, and occupy ecologies.

But the suburbs do, of course, speak back to such assumptions, being home to all kinds of people, being home to older buildings, being home to trees that provide refuge for migrating birds, to say nothing of the possums one gets in the eaves. In the Australian imagination, they are also the site for a relaxed if not comfortable eccentricity from Dame Edna Everage to to Kath and Kim to Dale Kerrigan. We often read the suburbs as neither here nor there, caught in between in a negative way, with none of the frisson of the metropolitan. They do not hold out the possibility of nature’s majestic calm, the intimacy we can gain from animals, let alone the rejuvenating power of wide open space that generates the sublime within us. The suburbs fail because they are either or, neither nor. And yet, they have the possibility of being a higher synthesis precisely because they can be a mediation of the country and the city, a place to dwell in, not merely to pass through.

Suburbia suggests a lifestyle, a way of life that is shaped by class but is not defined by it. There are middle class suburbs, working class suburbs, rich suburbs, but they are all suburbs at the end of the day. Lifestyle, after all, is the catchall word I hear at backyard barbeques: ‘it’s just such a great lifestyle’ and ‘we moved here for the lifestyle’. It is buried in the ignominious Tony Abbott soundbite ‘lifestyle choices’. When people are asked what this means, they tend to suggest pragmatic definitions – schools, housing prices, public transport. They might also mean lifestyle in the way Max Weber used it when he wrote:

The chances of attaining social honor are primarily determined by differences in the styles of life ….. social honor very frequently and typically is associated with the respective stratum’s legally guaranteed and monopolised claim to sovereign rights or to income and profit opportunities of a certain kind. Thus, if all characteristics are found, which, of course, is not always the case a ‘status group’ is a group societalised through its special styles of life, its conventional and specific notions of honor, and the economic opportunity it monopolises.

In this passage, we see the connection of lifestyle to status, social honour, income, prestige, rights and education. And so, lifestyle becomes ‘intersectional’ and in developing our concept of it, we must recognise that it matters over and above one sole valence of identity like race or class or gender. Indeed, a more developed concept of lifestyle may equip commentators to think beyond the cultural cringe, liberal identity politics, and even a reversion to class. Right now, lifestyle consciousness is not the national consciousness of an imagined community or an awareness grounded in the relationship between labour and capital. We cannot speak of it in the same way as ‘class consciousness’. But, it’s not absurd to suggest that suburbia offers distinct ways of being in the world. Suburbanites are not ‘inner city elites’ or ‘country bumpkins’ and in the everyday living that happens in the suburbs, we might come to understand something beyond liberalism and its rhetoric. It can offer a cohesive form of group identity that is nevertheless grounded in material reality.

Of course, suburbs differ from one to another. Neighbours’ Erinsborough is not the same as Home and Away’s Summer Bay in the fictional landscape, and in places that reference the real of poetry,  my Wembley is not the same as Lachlan Brown’s Macquarie Fields or Fiona Wright’s Newtown. Wembley is in the western suburbs of Perth, for a start, not in Sydney, and I experience it through my own personal history. My mother came from urbanising Singapore and my father from the farming land of the Western Australian wheatbelt. We grew our own veggies and played arcade games. There was a wetland at one end of the street and a food court at the other. We hosted local fetes and watched French New Wave cinema. These are the beginnings of a particularity that readers can relate to in their own postcodes and from their lives that are equally suburban.

Although my Wembley is unique and singular (just like Brown’s and Wright’s), the suburbs are a global phenomenon. The ties of lifestyle that bind them together include  commodities from fast fashion to branded gadgets, recognisable cars, and, food. In our own time, the attributes, component parts, ideals of the suburbs are ‘archipelagic’. One sees malls and multiplexes all over India; there are ring roads clogged with cars in China; and in Brazil, there are burgeoning gated communities. But the suburbs find a particular expression in Australia. Peter Timms casts suburbia as a foundational settler myth in Australia’s Quarter Acre (2006):

Although in its early years, the settlement at Sydney Cove was little more than a slave farm for criminals, there were those with the foresight to imagine a brighter future for it…. Their dream of a new democratic society, young, healthy and classless, found its clearest expression in the notion of suburbs, where all citizens would have the opportunity to form communities, express their creativity and make themselves useful. From the very beginning, suburbia was at the heart of Australia’s self-identity.

Timms gives us a celebratory definition of some of the virtues of suburbia – democratic, young, healthy, classless, creative, useful. But if the suburbs have been at the heart of settler Australia since the eighteenth century, and cause for occasional celebration, they have also long been maligned by people who don’t live in them.

For the ‘thinking Australian’, the suburbs are often boring, deracinated, and just plain shit. This is particularly the case for post-war commentators who wrote during the era of mass suburbanisation under Robert Menzies. Attacks by Patrick White, Boyd, and Horne were only the tip of the knife. Together, they mocked the dullness of the ordinary monoculture of most Australian neighbourhoods. As their contemporary Ronald Taft wrote in 1963:

Australia has had up to three adult generations in which a substantial part of the population could be caricatured as 8.10 am train catchers, Saturday gardeners and do-it-yourself home improvers, local school, sporting, social, fraternal and Church club stalwarts and, in more recent years, indulgers in the remote-control togetherness of reading the same newspapers and receiving the same radio and TV programmes as their neighbours. Today, 80 per cent of all Australian big city dwellers live in detached single-family houses, nearly all wholly or partially owned by the occupier, and nearly all with some type of private garden.

Taft saw suburbia as a style of life over and above work or leisure or religion or property or landscape alone. His portrait of the Australian majority in the mid-century is an outline that doesn’t quite correspond to how we live today, not least in regards to home-ownership and Church attendance, and perhaps with the rise of Netflix, what ‘remote- control togetherness’ actually is. But how are we to use this historical view of the suburbs as a way to connect with a truer image of what Australia now is? In other words, how do we establish the facts of how ordinary people lived rather than perpetuating the intellectual myths of the post-war nation? What can we reclaim from 1950s Australian suburbia?

Today, the suburbs offer country living, city benefits; a way of being that holds the promise of a higher synthesis of both those archetypal places. In Australia, the bush myth matters and so too does the city  – but the suburbs are where ‘the people’ live. They decide our elections from western Sydney to the Gold Coast corridor. They decide our popular culture from Masterchef to Survivor. They decide our public media debate from refugees to climate change. The suburbs are where hearts and minds are won. They matter for what they are and the power they have by virtue of their massification. Although mid-century intellectuals have mainly left a legacy of suburban derision, their observations opened up an opportunity. As Max Harris wrote in 1963:

Australians live in an enormous suburbia, the variations of which are matters of income and affluence rather than manners and values. Between Vaucluse and Paddington manners and mores vary only in affluence and sophistication, not in kind. Australian society is bleakly uniform. There is even, in the tribal sense, no real proletariat in Australia and this, at the very heart of things, explains the post-war moral dissolution of the Australian Labor Party. The ALP still subsumes the existence of a class-conscious proletariat tribally different from the middle and entrepreneurial class. There are trade unions, income variations, occupational hierarchies, but no clear-cut differentiation of living patterns. The wharfie in a Port Melbourne pub would have been hard put to ‘pick’ Essington Lewis [the industrialist] in the saloon bar by virtue of his accent, reactions, stance or presence. The social homogenousness of Australian life means that trade unionists unconsciously think of themselves as an economic pressure group, but not as a special social class.

In observing ‘living patterns’, Harris offers an entry point for a contemporary language that might be responsive to suburban Australia. After all, shifting the suburbs as a type of lifestyle to the centre of conversation offers the opportunity to realign our frames of reference. The suburbs are not simply for ‘ordinary Australians’ or ‘working families’: they are their own type of ecology and social relations. They offer something different and distinct, and lifestyle consciousness offers a way of being holistic that does not solely depend on an economic identity. Recall Weber: status, social honour, income, prestige, rights and education. Recall your neighbour or your cousin or that blokey stranger at the backyard barbeque: schools, public transport, sporting facilties, hospitals.

And so, it is an ongoing task to raise the consciousness of the lifestyle majority, to articulate what is actually happening in places where most Australians now live. Since Harris was writing, there has been a precipitous decline in union membership, a shift towards consumer identity, the harsh reality of a globalised free trade economy, the private-public partnerships common to universities, the rise of feminist involvement in the economic and public sphere, and the openings offered up by Indigenous and CALD conversations. Australia has changed immeasurably since Taft and Harris wrote, and so have the suburbs.

To think through that we must let go of the nostalgia for inner city neighbourhoods that were formerly industrial centres and pivot to the suburbs proper. Written in 1963, Vincent Buckley’s analysis seems prescient today:

Certainly, there is a steady drift from suburbia, in one sense. In Melbourne, the young married lecturer who ten years ago would have considered it inevitable to go to a six roomed timber villa in Cheltenham or Box Hill might now think first of Carlton, Parkville or even North Melbourne, places which in time may even become the suburban fringes of the university. But in this, too, they are not untypical of the society as a whole, the slow drift back towards the city has been joined by a variety of middle-class types. The fact is, that that these inner-suburban areas are ceasing to be industrial centres and slums. So a preference for Carlton over Kew may be as bourgeois a piece of conformism as any other. In either place, his neighbours are likely to think of the university man as very much like themselves – engaged in a different ‘job’, certainly, and doing it in the uniform of tweed jacket and slacks rather than a dark suit which is mandatory elsewhere but giving himself no airs and pretending to the appropriate trade-skills rather than to any special sources of enlightenment. Obviously there are advantages as well as disadvantages in this conformity to national habit; but one cannot be expected to welcome the phenomenon with much enthusiasm.

Buckley may well be describing the retrofitting of the inner city in our own time, the place where a bourgeoisie goes for cold drip coffee rather than saving pennies for a house and backyard an hour’s drive away to places where they are only just beginning to ride the brioche bun burger wave. If ‘the suburbs’ are a cave, the inner city is simply another one deeper still, which is why suburbs matter to Australia as a whole or to the archipelagos that feature in the United States, Canada and developing nations all over the world. And when we look here, at ourselves in a global context, we will see that we have very little that is urban and very little that is frontier. Welcome to the suburbs.

In particular, I can imagine a more complete suburbanism in my field of poetry. A conflict around Australian identity and poetry was revealed in the conversation around Puncher & Wattman’s recent Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry. The split emerged between traditional verse culture proponents who bemoaned the absence of bush ballads and members of avant-gardes resistant to the very idea of the nation. In other words, this was the bush vs the city. According to critics like David Campbell, representing the first group, and Corey Wakeling, representing the second, the anthology neglected both their respective constituencies. The response echoed the division between Les Murray and John Tranter from a previous generation.

These polar criticisms may yield a higher ground, in the form of a theory of suburban. In the most immediate way, the Anthology  included  poems of suburban spaces, including Luke Beesley’s ‘Split in the Table’, Pam Brown’s ‘Authentic Local’, Lachlan Brown’s ‘Evensong’, Judith Bishop’s ‘T/here’ and Diane Fahey’s ‘In the House’. They each present a view of the suburbs that comes after Bruce Dawe and Gwen Harwood, a contemporary critique and celebration of significant spaces, putting paid to any notion that it is only Athens and Boeotia that we need to choose from, forgetting all of Asian Minor.

The suburban interrupts both the rural nostalgia and frontier myths of Murray and Campbell and the rarefied modern city of Tranter and Wakeling. In that way, the new poetry of suburbia collected in the Puncher and Wattman Anthology can engage with suburban lifestyles, and present new responses to old criticisms of the suburbs. Although we surely benefit from both of them, we do not need to choose between the Banjo Paterson Australian Poetry Festival in Orange (annual) or the Active Aesthetics Conference on Australian Poetry in Berkeley (2016). We can probably go to each one, but maybe we can just go to our local coffee shop to listen to someone from the Australian Poetry Café Poet Program (2009 – 2014)

We might think of this as ‘suburbanism’, a kind of poetic sensibility that comes from suburban space but is the negation of the suburbanite. In that way the poet is not only called into the role as a bard of suburbia per se, which is how Geoff Page characterises Lachlan Brown in a review of Limited Cities in Southerly, writing that he is a ‘Whitman’ for his locale. Rather, it is that the poet has the potential to express true consciousness of lifestyle in a way that articulates what has been happening on these islands since at least the post-war era. The responsibility may be bardic in that she is held up to be the voice of her people – but that would rely on there being a suburban identity to begin with. Needless to say, a true poetic consciousness is one that is critical and engaged. It calls forth an enlightened notion of what it is to be from and for a place, one that negates the suburbanite exploition of the material base without a dialectical care in the world for recycling, parent and teacher meetings, and the community hall where life takes place.

J.M. Coetzee wrote on Les Murray’s idea of ‘sprawl’ for the New York Review of Books in 2011:

One of the chief Australian values that he [Murray] celebrates is sprawl. Sprawl is to Murray what loafing is to Whitman: an at-easeness in the world that upsets the tidy minds of schoolteachers and urban planners. ‘Reprimanded and dismissed/sprawl,’ ‘listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail/of possibility.’

As endearing and rebellious as Coetzee’s shorthand representation may seem, ‘sprawl’ should not simply be glossed as ‘at easeness’.  In Murray’s poem ‘The Quality of Sprawl’, sprawl is a type of inventiveness (the Rolls Royce cut into an ute), an approximation (farming, ‘roughly’), a generosity (driving hitchikers), a frugality unable to be bought (‘never lighting cigars with ten–dollar notes’), a bit of luck, the rub of the green, the leftover or extra (bananas, in this case), ‘the fifteenth to the twenty-frst lines in a sonnet’, classlessness, ‘not throwing up’ in a neighbour’s bed, ‘an image of my country’, and ‘roughly Christian’. It is not: ‘Society’, it is ‘not harming the official’, ‘brutality’, ‘Simon de Montfort’, ‘lewd advances; ‘hitting animals’, ‘speeding’.

In this way, Murray yokes sprawl to an idea of his place, which is, in his own words, a Bunyah that is a synechdoche of the archetypal Australian rural town that has its roots in Christianity. Yet, it also connects us to class, proposing that it is classless, which might be achieved when one enters more fully into the particularity of a class identity only to come out the other side of the dialectic.

As useful as this poetic identification of what sprawl is, it might be necessary to see how it functions in our common understanding of space. To dirempt Murray’s poetic from the ordinary language of what sprawl is suggests that poetry is separate from everyday speech and the politics of that. This is not the case when it simultaneously relies on a social observation and animating antagonisms that are grounded in those very same, very political formations. After all, sprawl is what we think of when we think of cities and the way they are expanding.  Our suburbs are ‘sprawlingnto new territories – and make no mistake, this term is most often used to deride this new place-making. It does not need to be so. We do not need sprawl to have an ‘at easeness’ like Coetzee would have us read into Murray, and we do not need sprawl as a way of occupying land that is our border.

To think too, of sprawl in the country: at my bush block in Redgate, the subdivisions on farming land are coming down the road from Witchcliffe. With that there are re-routed creeks, removed trees, occupied public space. This has implications for me personally but it also presents new challenges for the changing face of ‘the country’ as Murray imagines it. Redgate is not Bunyah, but I do not mind if it becomes Wembley. We cannot promote an Australia where ecologies are destroyed simply because we seek a largesse, seek a lifestyle that is so focused on consumption in an age of global economics, and for that reason, we might think of how to disagree with ‘sprawl’ as a poetic tenant and a spatial occupation.

But we cannot simply forget about the other side of the debate, folding ourselves into an experimental avant-garde that champions some rootless cosmopolitan metropole against the country as it were. In that way, the pure negation of sprawl complicates modernist ideas that poets need to make it new. New houses, like new poetic experiments, are the sprawl from the cities of sonnets, haiku, villanelles after all.

We might oppose sprawl with the retrofitting of suburban spaces in order to balance both our politics and our poetry. It is important for re-tooling progressive ideas of Australia from the solar panels currently being added to old suburbs to the re-discovery of the archive that would suggest we have a poetic tradition to be proud of right here on this continent.  Retrofitting means overcoming an unnecessary fetish for the new while at the same time sensing the possibilities that come with being truly here in a place with spirits and land that is old as well. There are inflections on that in poetic terms to from the erasure experiments many have conducted on old texts including those by Toby Fitch and Eddie Paterson to the sampling that comes from being attentive to the nightly news like Amelia Dale in Constitution.  But the claim might not be to make them part of a modernist lineage, not to think of them in critical terms that they are avant-garde as though a whole host of authors before these particular expression had not used such methods before. They are, as far as I can tell, not structural interventions in the field of ‘the new’. This might mean encouraging instead a kind of suburbanism that leans contemporary, but it does not immediately follow that we cannot see it as part of a consciousness of lifestyle that is part of the nation itself.

These are not the only possibilities. The poet of suburbanism might want to take an attentiveness to embodiment and combine it with formal innovation such as Andy Jackson in Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, which is a book about so much more than Marfan Syndrome. The poet of suburbanism might want to champion the margialised with an international frame of reference like Omar Sakr in These Wild Houses, which is a book about so much more than being Arab Australian. The poet of suburbanism might want to advocate for defamiliarised everyday speech aware of a digital sensibility such as Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage, which is a book about so much more than technology. We cannot turn away from the suburban, but can seek in it an understanding of who we are beyond being simple inheritors of a modernist and romantic tradition. A suburbanism based on a retrofitted poetics finds a higher synthesis between the country and the city as they were personified by an earlier generation of Australians. And that surely, is about expanding what is possible and paying respect to our past in developing a true consciousness of a lifestyle, that shared by the majority here and millions more who live all over the globe.

In looking back at the suburban moment in Australian intellectual culture from the 1950s, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing in there to be proud of. But we find in these negations of the ordinary, a possibility that poets can work with in our own time. We can find in them a style of life that is a rich compost and neon light that heats us and shines ever brighter. From that, we might begin to understand our own present in a language of our own making that speaks about what belonging is with a truthfulness of the human condition in the most basic sense.


Vincent Buckley, ‘Intellectuals’ Peter Coleman’s Australian Civilisation, Melbourne: Cheshire, 1963, p. 89 – 105
JM Coetzee, ‘The Angry Genius of Les Murray’ in New York Review of Books, Sept. 29, 2011
Nikki Gemmell, ‘Let Us Sprawl, Rejoice’, in The Australian, May 17, 2017.
Max Harris, ‘Morals and Manners’ in Peter Coleman’s Australian Civilisation, Melbourne: Cheshire, 1963, p. 47 – 68
Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth 1820 – 2000, New York: Vintage, 2004.
Donald Horne,The Next Australia, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970.
TAG Hungerford, Stories From Suburban Road: an autobiographical collection 1920-1939, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1983.
Kebin M. Kruse and Thomas J. Sugrue, The New Suburban History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson, David Musgrave, Contemporary Australian Poetry, Glebe: Puncher and Wattman, 2016.
Les Murray, The Quality of Sprawl, Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 1999.
Geoff Page, ‘Review of Lachlan Brown’s Limited Cities’ in ‘Islands and Archipelagoes’, Southerly, May, 2013.
Anisa Puri and Alistair Thompson, Australian Lives: an intimate history, Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2017.
Ronald Taft, ‘The Myth and the Migrants’ in Peter Coleman’s Australian Civilisation, Melbourne: Cheshire, 1963, p. 191 – 207
Peter Timms, Australia’s Quarter Acre, Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006.
Max Weber, Economy and society: an outline of interpretive sociology. Roth, Guenther and Wittich, Claus (eds.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
John Wilkes, Liberty in Australia, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1955.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Section 18’ Philosophical Investigations, trans. GEM Anscombe, London: Basil Blackwell, 1958.

Published June 1, 2018
Part of Emerging Critics 2018: Essays by the 2018 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Rita Horanyi, Darius Sepehri and Robert Wood. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2018 essays →
Robert Wood

Robert Wood is interested in dream, enlightenment, nature, suburbs and philosophy, and is a...

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